Even the book’s cover enchants. One cannot help but be mesmerized by the dramatic photograph centered on it. Four Mongolian horsemen are seen riding over a cold and grand steppe-like landscape dressed in a variety of colorful furs, overcoats and trimmed hats.
I suspect so little has changed that the same image could have been captured here a thousand years ago had there been cameras. But it’s what the riders are carrying that so captivates the reader and buoys this particular photo to another level. Perched regally on each right wrist is a golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). These are hunters practicing the ancient sport of falconry. A perfect shot to introduce Mark Cocker’s book “Birds & People.”
There might be a couple of hundred books in my library that pertain to birds. Among these is a handful that get read, used and thumbed through regularly. Most, however, are there for the occasional resource look-up or to simply provide me with a lode of readily available material should I ever need it like a miner with a gold claim that never quite gets worked. Just knowing it’s there brings a contented satisfaction.
Then there are the tomes, the large admired volumes of bird lore that are more than just books, they are mines themselves—definitive resources, ultimate arbiters—revered individually for one reason or another. These are the encyclopedias of particular subgenres. Cocker’s work is one of these.
This column has spoken of the interaction between man and nature many times, most often as it pertains to birds. But Cocker’s “Birds & People” synthesizes hundreds of these interfaces from many of the world’s cultures and from throughout its recorded centuries and does so in an enlightened and entertaining way.
The book’s blurb states, “Part natural history and part cultural study, it describes and maps the entire spectrum of our engagements with birds, drawing in themes of history, literature, art, cuisine, language, lore, politics, and the environment.”
Cocker deftly walks us through the world’s taxonomical families of birds, telling beguiling accounts of humankind’s involvement with them on every continent. More than 650 people from 81 countries sent in stories to be included in this beautiful compendium of ideas.
The author freely points out the necessity of brevity given the scope of the project and says to fully “do justice” to an exhaustive worldwide review of the relationship between people and birds would “easily fill 20 volumes of this size.” For its size (more than 500 pages), however, I consider Cocker’s work the defining record of how we have lived, and continue to live, with birds.
We learn, for instance, how a humble pheasant-like Asian bird called the red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) was bred into a familiar form and became the biggest source of human protein on earth, a bird we now call the domestic chicken. We learn how deeply woven into Indian mythology is the peacock (Pavo cristatus), how revered was the sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) by the ancient Egyptians, how fishing with the use of cormorants by Chinese and Japanese fisherman began several centuries B.C. We learn also that Native Americans hung gourds to house purple martins (Progne subis) way before Europeans arrived on the continent. These and myriad more anecdotes await the curious reader.
Merge these comprehensive tales with the breathtaking photography of David Tipling, and you have a volume for the ages. A field guide it’s not. It won’t fit in your purse or handbag for subway reading either. No, this is a large volume fit for dens, for coffee tables, for honored spots on library shelves. Don’t let its size intimidate though. This book can be easily consumed like an hors d’oeuvre, nibbled on now and again, starting and stopping virtually anywhere within. It’s an encyclopedia really.
Perhaps even more thought-provoking than the strict bird lore itself is how the creatures have been perceived by us throughout the centuries, everything from revulsion and fear, exploitation and abuse, to reverence and awe. Cocker holds up a mirror to us, often revealing our warts and unpleasantness however ugly.
Indeed, birds have captivated us since we walked out of caves and they continue to do so. The author has compiled a collective record of this captivation and offers it to us for our reading pleasure. Cocker says, “In the end this is a book as much about us as it is about birds.”